Six ways you can start to be healthier right now

Woman with clockWhen we think about trying to be healthier it sometimes seems like it will be a hard job.

You may think of a detox or other strict diet, cutting out alcohol, running for miles, or whatever. It can seem like there’s a lot to do, so you do nothing.

But does it have to be like that?

I don’t know if you follow cycling (I don’t really), but when I was watching the cycle races at the London Olympics a couple of years ago I kept hearing the phrase “marginal gains”.

The British cycling team seemed to win more medals than anyone else and these marginal gains were said to be the key.

The idea behind this marginal gains approach is that rather than producing a big improvement in one aspect of a process, very small improvements in several areas add up to a massive overall improvement.

I’ve been thinking about this as an approach to improving health. Rather than focusing on one thing, why not just do a little better in lots of areas and let all the small health improvements add up?

So what should you be doing to produce these marginal gains in health? How can you start to be healthier today?

1. Cut down smoking

Ideally this would have said stop smoking altogether, but with the marginal gains approach cutting down may be possible where quitting completely isn’t.

The problem with cutting down rather than quitting is that each cigarette you smoke increases the feeling of craving that makes it hard to stop smoking. Stopping altogether causes the craving to subside.

But, if you are able to cut down the number of cigarettes you smoke that will improve your health.

As you already know, smoking causes all sorts of health problems.

Cigarette smoke contains:

  • Smoke particles that irritate your lungs, causing bronchitis and eventually emphysema.
  • Tar that irritates your lungs and increases the risk of throat and lung cancer
  • Carbon monoxide that damages your blood vessels, increasing the risk of heart disease and strokes
  • Chemicals that increase the risk of other cancers, such as bladder cancer

Cutting down the amount you smoke will reduce your risk in each of these areas. But, as I said, quitting is better.

2. Drink less alcohol

Alcohol increases your risk of a number of health problems, and the more you drink the greater the risk.

Alcohol isn’t all bad though. Drinking a small amount of alcohol each day can actually reduce your risk of heart disease, and there is research to support this.

It’s not clear how this works but it may be that someone who drinks a small amount of alcohol fairly regularly may be the relaxed kind of person who is less likely to suffer from heart disease. Or, it may be some effect of the alcohol itself.

Now to the bad stuff. Probably the best known health problem associated with excessive alcohol consumption is liver disease.

Alcohol causes damage to the liver, which can lead to cirrhosis and liver failure. Toxic chemicals are produced in the liver as it breaks down the alcohol, which damage and eventually kill the liver cells.

Excessive alcohol consumption can also increase the risk of:

  • Brain damage, leading to memory loss and dementia.
  • Mental health problems
  • High blood pressure, heart disease and stroke
  • Pancreatitis
  • Certain types of cancer, including cancer of the mouth and esophagus

Reducing the amount of alcohol you drink will reduce your risk all these health conditions

3. Eat less saturated fat

Saturated fat comes mostly from animal sources, so eating less fatty meat will reduce your consumption of saturated fat.

Some vegetable products also contain a lot of saturated fat, so you could avoid these sources too. Examples include coconut oil, and the cocoa butter found in chocolate.

A diet high in saturated fat can increase your risk of health conditions like heart disease and type-2 diabetes. This is explained below.

Saturated fat in the diet increases the amount of cholesterol produced by your liver. This cholesterol circulates in the form of LDL-cholesterol (also known as “bad cholesterol”). High levels of LDL-cholesterol increase your risk of atherosclerosis, which causes heart disease and stroke.

Saturated fat in the diet also increases the amount of fat (triglycerides) in your blood circulation. High levels of blood fats increase your risk of developing type-2 diabetes by reducing the body’s response to insulin. Insulin, as you may know, enables your body cells to use glucose.

So look for opportunities to eat less animal fat, particularly processed meats which contain a lot of it.

4. Eat more fiber

Dietary fiber comes from indigestible plant material. Since it is indigestible it isn’t broken down like the rest of the food you eat, so it provides “bulk” in your diet.

As this bulky mass passes through your intestines it helps you in a number of ways:

  • It helps to speed up the flow of food through your gut, which reduces your risk of constipation
  • It reduces absorption of fats, which reduces your blood fats (see above)
  • It holds onto water, which makes your stools moist and easy to pass
  • It “scrubs” the walls of your intestines reducing your risk of inflammatory bowel disease, appendicitis and colon cancer

What foods contain a lot of fiber? Bran cereals, wholemeal bread, raspberries and blackberries, and most vegetables.

5. Do more exercise

We’re not talking about running a marathon here, but we are not designed to be couch potatoes. Any kind of physical activity is good, and it will help you in a number of ways. Here are just three:

a. Exercise will help your heart and blood circulation. Your heart pumps blood on the outward journey around your body, but it is mostly physical exercise that brings the blood back to the heart.

The veins in your body depend on your muscles contracting around them to push the blood through. If you don’t move around enough your blood will stagnate and may clot inside the veins, which can be life-threatening.

b. Exercise increases bone density. Many systems in your body adopt a “use it or lose it” approach. Everyone one know that if you don’t use your muscles they get smaller, but a similar thing happens with your bones.

Weight bearing exercise stresses the bones and causes them to become more dense. Not exercising increases your risk of bone fractures, and this can be a particular problem for women.

c. Regular physical activity improves your coordination, and this becomes more important as we get older. It’s been shown that exercise reduces the risk of falls in older people, so regular exercise is especially important in this age group.

6. Get enough sleep

It seems that more and more of us get less and less sleep these days, and this sleep deprivation has been linked with various health problems.

Lack of sleep can increase your risk of becoming obese, and obesity is linked with other health problems such as high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes and cancer.

It seems that being sleep deprived and tired increases you appetite, so you increase your calorie intake. It can also cause metabolic changes in your body that reduce the calories you burn, which causes fat build up.

Sleep deprivation is also linked to high blood pressure, activated fight or flight response (feeling stressed), and an increased risk of heart disease.

Eight hours seems to be the amount of sleep required to avoid the increased risk of these health problems, so early to bed early to rise should make you healthy (and maybe wealthy and wise too?)

Only six ways to be healthier?

There are many more things that could be added to the list here. Each of these would also produce marginal gains, or incremental improvements, to your health.

If you know of any good ones please drop us a line using the form below.

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